Financial Times examines Google’s ‘secret formula’

In another Google story, the Financial Times (registration required) punctures some of the mythology around the legendary algorithm that powers Google search.

First of all, it’s a work in progress. There were some 500 tweaks to the algorithm last year alone, some of which radically effect online businesses, some of whom are Google competitors.

“Some of those changes may change ranking substantially for some queries – that’s the nature of it,” says Amit Singhal, the Google search expert responsible for the algorithm. But he denies that the search company has any particular class of sites in mind when making changes to the rules that determine how they are ranked, or that it “penalizes” any by singling them out for special treatment.”

That’s a myth, says Dave Sifry, founder of Technorati, a specialized Internet search engine ad Google competitor.

“I don’t think it’s anywhere near being nefarious – but algorithms are not just pure rules that arrive out of nowhere.” By changing its mathematical formula to modify the results returned to a particular query, Google’s engineers are making judgments very similar to the editorial decisions made at a more traditional media organization, he and others argue.”

And, even if Google’s engineers are well-meaning in their approach to the search rankings – as some critics are prepared to concede – their good intentions may not be enough.

“We can’t be sure that Google 10 years from now won’t be corrupt – or that whoever is the dominant search engine won’t be corrupt,” Siva Vaidhyanathan, an associate professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, told the FT.

Published by Margot Williams

Margot Williams has more than two decades of experience in roles as investigative researcher, research editor, database editor, technology trainer and library director at The New York Times, The Washington Post, Gannett newspapers and Time Warner. She was lead researcher on two Pulitzer Prize-winning teams at The Washington Post for reporting on terrorism in 2002 and for an investigation of the use of deadly force by the District of Columbia police in 1999. Margot is the co-author of “Great Scouts! CyberGuides for Subject Searching on the Web” (Cyberage Books, 1999) and contributed to the “Networkings” column in The Washington Post for five years.

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